Reality Itself

Philosophical Challenges of Indian Mahāyāna

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Joseph O'Leary
  • Nagoya, Japan: 
    Chisokudo Publications
    , March
     430 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Joseph S. O'Leary, the well-known theologian (and Catholic cleric) affiliated with Sophia University and Nanzan University in Japan, has been noted—at least since the mid-1990s—for his inventive enlacement of Buddhism and Christianity. The fifteen essays in Reality Itself: Philosophical Challenges of Indian Mahāyāna compile his thought on this enlacement, and, as usual, reflect O'Leary's unique style—at once impressionistic, encyclopedic, and argumentative.

O'Leary proposes that the time of "modern consciousness" has arrived, so a "phenomenological reduction of the entire discourse on salvation" is required, "in the sense of grasping the bedrock realities that give rise to it" (163). Buddhism and Christianity can abet each other in this effort, because "two [walking together] shorten a road" (Irish proverb, quoted on 409). Because philosophy can be often more "disinterested"—in the positive sense—than religion, it can help in the "work of reduction" (9, 76).

Whether one agrees or disagrees with O'Leary's overarching project, his erudition is certain to engage any open-minded scholar. The first four chapters take the reader on a tour (a tour-de-force, actually) through Mahāyāna Buddhism, probing how Buddhism can be of avail to Christianity. Buddhist emptiness "accepts the [positive] nothingness at work in the heart of being, and thereby discovers that in their very fragility and mutual dependency phenomena become the vehicles of a new freedom" (44). Inspired by Buddhism's "gracious emptiness," Christian theologians "may find that an empty God, who is non-self, is closer, phenomenologically, to the dynamic Johannine and Pauline conception of God as an event of Spirit, light, agapē [love], than to the God of classical metaphysical theology" (78).

The next four chapters analyze four Mahāyāna sūtras in detail. For example, the Heart Sūtra, with its progressive elimination of entitative thinking, helps to dislodge the hold of Greek ontology on Christian doctrine (100). The nonduality taught by the Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa gives insight into St. Paul's rejection of the Hebraic law's dualities (135). The Mahāyānist use of upāya, "skillful means," clarifies mechanisms whereby Christians from Paul to Origen found in the Old Testament Christian meanings hidden from Jews themselves (142). The "universal salvation" proposed by the Lotus Sūtra intersects with Christian theologies celebrating the simple "goodness of being" (176), so Christ's death and resurrection become a "cipher" of this goodness.

The three chapters on Nāgārjuna exposit his famous "Middle Way": how he dismantles the formulations of prior Buddhist schools, for example, showing them to be ultimately empty. O'Leary applies Nāgārjuna's "Two Truths," the "conventional" and the "ultimate," to a new Christian "language game": the "story of Jesus becomes an eloquent Word [conventional truth] revealing the empty face of God" [ultimate truth] (195). O'Leary, later in his book, takes up Nāgārjuna's famous assertion, "There is no distinction between saṃsāra and nirvāṇa" in a long treatment (and surprising rehabilitation, it must be said) of G.W.F. Hegel (374). O'Leary's last section, "Philosophical Movements," comprises four chapters that can stand alone. They treat the "Critical Buddhism" of late 20th-century Japan; and Buddhism in relation to Edmund Husserl, Jean-Paul Sartre, David Hume, and Hegel.

Despite O'Leary's frequent disapproval of substantialist metaphysics (21, 78, 80, 100, etc.; see "substance" and "metaphysics" in his index), surely both postmodernists and Derridian deconstructionists are appalled by his declared "objective" (his word): the reduction to "reality itself" (8, 27), "ultimate reality" (119), "bedrock realities" (163), "bedrock simplicity" (179), "macro-vehicle" (186), "bedrock phenomena" (341)—all descriptions of a telltale "solidity." It is revealing, in this regard, that O'Leary consistently belittles postmodernism and Derridian deconstruction (for example, 109, 144, 243, 266, 378), two recent movements that surpass the "modern" and fracture modernity's "substantialism," rendering it anachronous. As for the current philosophical aftermaths of postmodernism/deconstruction, they likewise undercut O'Leary's "secure grasp of the real" (409), but O'Leary, instead, retrogrades again and again to the "modern" (26, 186, 320, 409, etc.).

Here, for brevity's sake, I resort to what hermeneuts call "Auerbachian découpage," the analysis of a textual passage, the game-plan of which operates throughout an oeuvre. Here is the passage by O'Leary: "A comprehensive religiosity today would simply treat all the religions as working through a legacy of myth and metaphor and finding their way back to a bedrock simplicity where they all meet in their truth. The ultimate object of adoration would just be reality itself, in all its unfathomable mystery and splendor, of which the various religions, as imaginative constructions, bring out aspects" (179).

But philosophical historian that he is, O'Leary knows that historical currents have counter-currents, so the main theme of the symphony he is orchestrating must admit variations, a disruptive scherzo or even a syncopated off-beat. Thus, the above passage continues: "Christian theology resists it by insisting that Jesus Christ is a singular eschatological event by which the whole world is saved and launched towards its final destiny" (179). Such dissonance cannot be allowed to linger, however, so there must be some deflation, a musical échec of some kind: Thus, the following paragraph explains how the "founding figure" of a religion, especially if regarded as historical, is difficult to reconcile with said religion's "universalism." Voilà, the symphony's main theme remains dominant.   

There are strands of French feminism that contrast male and female genius in the face of the inscrutable. The male disposition tries to seize and name even the unnamable, while the feminine disposition knows when to pause and await. When comparing Buddhist and Christian motifs, sometimes O'Leary meets an impasse. Throughout his book, his frequent maneuver in such cases is to acknowledge the "tension" and to affirm that the matter must be "negotiated" (see 145 and 175 for fine examples of this tactic). Insofar as negotiation seeks a solution and hardens it into a "settlement," it is what Derrida would call a "logocentric" (i.e., substantialist) formation. O'Leary's genius is that he often can negotiate such practical solutions, and his work should be highly appreciated for when he can achieve this "objective." His book's last line includes an apposite clausal phrase: "Reality plays hard to get." This wording makes a good gong'an (koan), actually, but there are those who don't get it.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert Magliola is an affiliate at Istituto "Vangelo & Zen," Milano, Italy; professor of philosophy and religions at the Assumption University of Thailand; and retired Distinguished Chair Professor in the Graduate School of Liberal Arts at National Taiwan University.

Date of Review: 
September 26, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joseph S. O'Leary


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